Review: Ford's SYNC 3 is more like a smartphone, but there's still room for improvement

A Google-like navigation search feature is a welcome addition to SYNC 3

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After spending a week with a 2016 Ford Escape with the new Blackberry QNX-based SYNC 3 in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system, I can say two things: One, the system is definitely better than the previous Windows-based SYNC 2 system; two, it still has a long way to go.

Overall, SYNC 3 has a cleaner, more intuitive feel and far better voice recognition capability with its upgraded Nuance software that enables a more conversational-style human-machine interface (HMI).

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The home screen of the SYNC 3 system, which has three main functions as compared to the previous system, which was divided into four quadrants. The new home screen has a more smartphone-like appearence with a handy GPS map always on display.

SYNC 3, however, is not all that smartphone friendly. For one, if you own an iPhone, you'll still need to plug your phone into a USB port to use mobile apps on Ford's AppLink system. Bluetooth wireless connectivity for mobile apps only works with Android smartphones.

When Ford announced last year that it was moving its IVI system away from the Windows Embedded Automotive OS to Blackberry's QNX, it was heralded by pundits as a move in the right direction.

For one, QNX is considered a friendlier platform for mobile app developers, meaning more current and future smartphone applications will more easily integrate with it. Secondly, infotainment systems using QNX have consistently received high reliability and usability ratings from consumer publications. Ford's SYNC system has never been recommended by Consumer Reports magazine.

Lastly, QNX is the predominant telematics system platform in the automotive industry and has already been vetted by such automakers as Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Toyota and Volkswagen, making it an almost de facto standard.

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SYNC 3's navigation page where you can preset destinations, such as work and home, add favorite places and even find some of the most common local destinations, such as gas stations and restaurants.

Ford's SYNC 3 IVI is  available on the 2016 models of the Escape, Fiesta, F-150, Mustang and Transit. SYNC 3 will migrate to the rest of the North American lineup of vehicles by the end of 2016.

Some obvious problems

One of the glitches I discovered in using my iPhone 6 with SYNC 3 is that certain apps, such as iHeartRadio and Spotify, need to be launched on the phone before they'll show up on the IVI screen. That's pretty inconvenient. I want to be able to have them simply appear as soon as the phone's plugged into the USB port, and hopefully someday when it's connected via Bluetooth.

Ken Williams, supervisor of HMI product development at Ford, said the company is working with Apple to have the SYNC IVI automatically detect compatible mobile apps, as it can already do with Pandora.

Currently, 14 mobile apps are compatible with the new SYNC 3 system.

SYNC 3 also does not natively support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, smartphone mirroring interfaces with which your infotainment screen can take on the look of your smartphone along with its mobile apps.

Ford is planning to offer Apple's and Android's API in the future, Williams said, but there's no specific release date.

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The SYNC 3 system control pad on the steering wheel allows you to use hands-free voice commands or page through selections on the infotainment system's screen using the cursor buttons.

Shortcomings aside, there have been some significant improvements to Ford's communications and entertainment head unit.

All new hardware

Along with a software change out, SYNC 3 comes with all new hardware, which is based on a dual-core CPU running at 1.7GHz (ARM Cortex 15) from Texas Instruments. The previous SYNC system ran on a single core CPU running at 600MHz (ARM Cortex A8) from Freescale.

fordsync3 02 hr Ford

SYNC 3 has a new capacitive screen that allows you to swipe or pinch to expand and contract the navigation systems map.

Believe me, the speed with which the system responds to touch and voice commands is noticeably faster.

Ford replaced its previously resistive touch screen with a capacitive touch screen, offering an experience similar to a smartphone or tablet. Instead if pressing on the screen to activate a function, as with the old system, a light touch produces the same results.

The new screen also has pinch-to-zoom and swipe capability, along with fewer and cleaner graphics. The previous SYNC 2 system's home screen had four quadrants: navigation, phone, entertainment and climate; and each quadrant opened a more detailed menu. The new SYNC 3 has three quadrants -- always on navigation, entertainment and phone. Tile-like icons dominate, with a quick access function tray along the bottom of the screen making for a more straightforward user experience.

I own a 2013 Ford Escape with the SYNC 2 system, which Ford calls SYNC with MyTouch, and I can tell you that attempting to move a GPS map around to see where you're headed is hit or miss -- sometimes it moves, sometimes it doesn't. And, when it does move, it's in tiny increments.

The new GPS map in SYNC 3 tracks more smoothly and displays not only the street you're on, but also the speed limit. Swiping a light finger across the map in any direction instantly sends the map there, too.

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The SYNC 3 apps screen, where some mobile apps are automatically detected from an attached smartphone and displayed for use.

A stand-out navigation system

As with the previous generation of SYNC, the current one offers hands-free navigation, meaning you can speak the address or point of interest into the system.

The previous SYNC system, however, was hit or miss, and you had to speak the address slowly and precisely -- one... number... at... a... time. Saying something like "four ninety-five Adams Road," would bring up a list of addresses that were everything but where you wanted to go.

I found the new voice-activated navigation system far friendlier, and it was immediately able to discern any address I spoke into it no matter how I said the numbers.

Another standout feature of the SYNC 3 system is One Box Search, a Google-like search window that can look up points of interest or enter addresses in much the same way an Internet search engine would.

For example, if you begin typing the word "restaurant" into the window, by the time you get to "R-E-S", the search term "restaurant" will pop up as a choice on the menu. Selecting it will get you a long list of nearby restaurants to which you can navigate.

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The 2016 Ford Escape SE.

The previous SYNC system required users to input address numbers, street names, and the name of a city all in separate windows before navigation could begin.

SYNC 3 also offers Siri Eyes-Free capability for iPhone users. You simply press down and hold the voice activation button on the steering wheel to ask a question.

By pressing the voice activation button on the steering wheel, you also can use hands-free texting through connected smartphones. I, however, had some issues with my Ford Escape's IVI. After sending a couple of voice-activated texts, the system began telling me there were no messages in my in-box. That may be a glitch in need of a fix.

Another great feature of SYNC 3 is over-the-air software updates using Wi-Fi. You simply park close enough to your home's Wi-Fi router to connect to it and then navigate to the update screen. Previously, owners had to download updates to a thumb drive and plug it into the vehicle's USB port or bring the vehicle to a dealer.

SYNC 3 also comes with an enhanced 911 Assist that provides subscription-free emergency calling in the event of an accident.

Overall, the SYNC 3 system has reduced complexity and prioritized the most important functions, such as navigation, search and smartphone use. While I like the tile-like icons, I do believe they could be made even bigger. My rational? The bigger they are, the easier they are to find.

SYNC 3 definitely offers a more straightforward user experience, but it needs to be more tightly integrated with smartphones OSes in order for drivers to have a more seamless mobile experience. After all, cars are quickly becoming simply your largest digital mobile device.

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